Variant Virus Strains Hit the County

Across the northern tier of Whatcom County, there were substantially higher rates of coronavirus infections than in Bellingham during April, according to recent data from the county health department. From the above graph and other county data, one can determine that people living in the Blaine, Ferndale and Lynden subareas have experienced an average 435 new Covid cases per 100,000 individuals in the four-week period from April 3 to May 1. That’s nearly double the average 241 new cases per 100,000 citizens that Bellingham encountered during the same period. And these three areas saw a significant rise in late April. What can account for this striking geographical difference?

New county Covid-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 individuals per week.

New county Covid-19 hospitalizations have also witnessed a substantial increase toward the end of the month, peaking at 7.5 per 100,000 on April 27 — which corresponds to 17 individuals newly hospitalized per week. And three Covid-19 deaths occurred between April 28 and May 6, according to the most recent state mortality data. (Note from the comment of Dick Conoboy below that a fourth Covid-19 death may have just occurred on May 8.)

Weekly number of Covid-19 cases in Vancouver area, April 18-24, 2021.

These data all suggest that the B.1.1.7 variant coronavirus strain has indeed crept into the county from British Columbia, which has been experiencing a serious outbreak of that variant — and more recently the P.1 variant from Brazil — since mid-February. According to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, the prevalence of such “variants of concern” has reached 80 percent in the Vancouver area. And the Fraser South health district immediately adjacent to the county, especially the city of Surrey, has experienced the highest case counts in the province.

From research in Great Britain, the B.1.1.7 variant is known to be at least 50 percent more contagious than the original strains — and is likely more deadly, especially for the elderly. This happens because it causes much higher loads of the virus, which makes it more difficult for our immune systems to fight off. That would explain the recent surge in Whatcom County cases and hospitalizations. It might also account for what may be a recent rise in Covid-19 deaths.

In early May, an emergency-room nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital commented on Facebook that “this wave of COVID we are seeing is by far the worst we’ve seen here in Bellingham.” Her comment dovetails with what would be expected from the B.1.1.7 and P.1 variants, whose higher virus loads can lead to more serious infections.

"This wave of Covid we are seeing is by far the worst we've seen in Bellingham." 

And the B.1.1.7 variant is in fact spreading through Whatcom County, according to County Health Officer Greg Stern in a May 4 presentation to the County Council. Indeed, from the May 5 Washington state report on variant viruses, the level of B.1.1.7 has begun surging in the County. At least 98 cases of this variant had occurred by mid-April — the third highest per-capita level in the state, after King and Franklin Counties. And that’s only among the limited samples that county health departments chose to have “sequenced” for characteristic mutations that would identify them as variants.

“The dominant strain in Washington is B.1.1.7,” observed Stern at the May 4 council meeting. According to the state Department of Health report issued the next day, it so far accounts for 46.7 percent of the strains in virus samples collected statewide from April 4 to April 17. The P.1 variant strain accounted for another 11.2 percent. Those percentages were rising rapidly then and are surely higher now.

So the question naturally arises: “How are these variants entering the county?” And my answer: most likely from British Columbia. 

Although most vehicle traffic from Canada has been restricted by the US Border Patrol (and will continue to be so limited at least until May 21), truckers have been allowed entry for valid trade and transport purposes. They are likely to fuel up at the truck stops in Blaine and Ferndale, given the comparative prices of diesel fuel in Canada and the United States. They are also likely to eat at restaurants there during these stops, which is awfully hard to do while wearing a mask. That would provide easy paths of entry for the variant viruses known to be afflicting British Columbia. And it helps explain the late-April case increases in areas along I-5.

There are others who are being allowed in, including returning US citizens, students and people who have valid business purposes to enter. But there has not been any noticeable rise in cases at Western Washington University, which totals under 100 cases. And the Bellingham per-capita rate remains among the lowest in the county.

Another factor is resistance to vaccination, which Stern and Department of Health Director Erika Lautenbach emphasized at the May 4 meeting. “We have seen a slowdown in vaccinations,” she told council members. “There are people we’ve seen in hospitals that are getting very sick who have not been vaccinated.”

When asked who was reluctant and why, Stern replied: “People concerned about not trusting the government and health department.” He also said that there was a lot of misinformation circulating about Covid-19 being nothing to worry about.

“There are people we've seen in hospitals that are getting very sick who've not been vaccinated.”

— Whatcom County Health Director Erika Lautenbach

That is what occurred in the San Juan Island outbreak in early April. One major vector of that event was a mother and son who did not take the coronavirus seriously and thought he just had a “bad cold.” So at least six new cases resulted from an April 2–3 sleepover that he participated in.

One can speculate — and I will — that there is a greater concentration of Covid-19 deniers and vaccine avoiders in the more northerly reaches of Whatcom County, given the different political persuasions there. That would offer fertile breeding grounds for variant strains sneaking across the border. If the county health department were to publish vaccination rates by subarea, as they do for confirmed cases, we would know the answer, one way or the other.

Readers are welcome to add their own observations.

Fortunately, the two vaccines widely used in Whatcom County have proved to be highly effective against the B.1.1.7 variant. In large-scale studies in Britain and Israel, the Pfizer vaccine proved to be almost equally effective against this variant as it was against the original strains for which it was developed last year. Indications are that the same is true for the Moderna vaccine, which uses a similar “messenger-RNA” technology to coax immune systems into producing antibodies against the deadly coronavirus. Less is known about these vaccines' effectiveness against the P.1 variant strain because large-scale studies have yet to be done.

The reasons to get vaccinated against the coronavirus far outweigh any putative dangers of doing so.

Thus those who have already been fully vaccinated using these vaccines can rest assured that they will have about 95 percent immunity to the B.1.1.7 variant, too — and in almost every case will have much less severe symptoms if they do become infected. And they will greatly reduce their chances of becoming an asymptomatic carrier and passing the disease along to family, friends and business associates. The reasons to get vaccinated against the coronavirus far outweigh any putative dangers of doing so.

But will reason ultimately prevail?


References

BC Centre for Disease Control, “BC COVID-19 Data,” May 6, 2021.

Michael Riordan, “A Variant Virus Outbreak in Whatcom County?”, Northwest Citizen, March 12, 2021. 

Michael Riordan, “The Fourth Wave Is Here,” Orcas Currents, April 20, 2021.

Washington State Department of Health, “SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing and Variants in Washington State," May 5, 2021.

Whatcom County Health Department, “Whatcom County COVID-19 Data Dashboard: Additional Data,” May 4, 2021.

About Michael Riordan

Posting Citizen Journalist • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

May 08, 2021

Michael,

I think the problem with the reactions to COVID and the vaccinations is a multi-layered problem, much of it cultural. What are the thought processes and approaches to knowledge that people grow up with? What is valued by certain groups? Cooperation? Independence? There are also studies, about which I am sure that most reading this site know, that indicate there are those pre-disposed, perhaps genetically, to react from fear or an inability to tolerate ambiguity. And that shows up, probably unsurprisingly, in their political choices in their seeking uncomplicated reassurance. Our ability to calculate risk is very poor almost across the board in our society… even among “us” the supposed cognoscenti, eh?  So, how do we connect with those in Whatcom County whose lives have been formed by distrust, fear, ignorance, etc.? Laws, executive orders, and other coercive measures can only go so far before there is a backlash as we have seen even though I support some of these measures from a basic health standpoint. The more you look at this problem, the more Gordian it becomes…

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Dick Conoboy

May 08, 2021

 Michael,

And this that just landed in my inbox”

“A total of 19 residents and staff at Avamere Bellingham Healthcare and Rehabilitation have tested positive for COVID-19, the Whatcom County Health Department said on Saturday, May 8.

Two people have been hospitalized, and a man in his 80s, who was diagnosed with COVID-19, has died, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

The Whatcom County Health Department has been responding to the outbreak in coordination with the skilled nursing facility since being notified of a confirmed case associated with Avamere on April 24, the department said in response to questions from The Bellingham Herald, which heard about the cases from a reader with family there.

https://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/coronavirus/article251248284.html

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Michael Riordan

May 09, 2021

Thanks, Dick, for both of your comments.

On the first, I wholeheartedly agree. I forget that I was trained as a scientist to be able to quantify ambiguity and therefore also the risk involved in taking data too seriously. And that training spills over into my wider life.

Few others get that kind of education, and so can be frightened away from vaccines that MAY cause a few blood clots per million doses administered. And they probably do not distinguish between the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines for which that reaction has tentatively been observed from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, for which it has not (but have been shown to cause anaphylaxis in certain patients). They just mush it all together in their minds and refuse to trust the government and health department, as Greg Stern told the County Council.

But I have little patience with Covid deniers like the San Juan Island mother who refused to recognize the possibility that her son was infected, despite displaying severe symptoms, and then caused the infection of at least six others and probably more. Fortunately nobody died from that outbreak.

In my book, that’s called stupidity.

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Dick Conoboy

May 09, 2021

Michael,

As someone once said, “It’s too bad stupidity is not painful”.  Nonetheless it will be around for as long as humans walk the earth. So how do we deal with it?

Just this morning the following article appeared in the Guardian. 

How harm reduction models can save US lives in the pandemic

Excerpt: “The principles of the harm reduction model can differ, but focus on some core concepts. It accepts that some people will continue harmful behaviors. It aims to build a healthy community without judgment or coercion, providing other health-focused services. It also tries to minimize risky behavior by carefully tailoring messages, and choosing trustworthy messengers to approach each community instead of relying on broad government guidance.”

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Michael Riordan

May 10, 2021

The Avamere outbreak sounds like it may have been caused by the P.1 variant, which is known from Brazil to reinfect those who have already had Covid-19. I’m guessing that this also can happen to those who have been vaccinated against the original “wild” forms of the coronavirus.

This variant appeared in BC in March, beginning with an outbreak at the Whistler ski resort. On April 6, the BC Centre for Disease Control reported 872 P.1 cases in the province, making it the largest known outbreak outside of Brazil. By April 26, that number had increased to more than 2,000 cases.

I hope the Whatcom health department is having a sufficient number of Avamere virus samples sequenced, and soon, so that it can inform citizens about what happened at that nursing home.

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Enoch J Ledet

May 11, 2021

Hi Michael,

So if the new synthetic mRNA vaccines contain genomic coding for the initial spike proteins can these spike proteins and/or mRNA from the vaccine be incorporated into human DNA as the following reference/resource infers?

Further evidence supports controversial claim that SARS-CoV-2 genes can integrate with human DNA. By Jon Cohen May. 6, 2021 , 2:45 PM

A team of prominent scientists has doubled down on its controversial hypothesis that genetic bits of the pandemic coronavirus can integrate into our chromosomes and stick around long after the infection is over. If they are right—skeptics have argued that their results are likely lab artifacts—the insertions could explain the rare finding that people can recover from COVID-19 but then test positive for SARS-CoV-2 again months later.

Researchers also presented a brace of scientific criticisms, some of which the team addresses in a paper released online today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “We now have unambiguous evidence that coronavirus sequences can integrate into the genome,” Jaenisch says.

In the new PNAS paper, the team provides evidence that artifacts alone can’t explain the detected levels of virus-human chimeric DNA. The scientists also show that portions of LINE-1 elements flank the integrated viral genetic sequence, further supporting their hypothesis. And they have collaborated with one of the original skeptics, Stephen Hughes of the National Cancer Institute, who suggested an experiment to clarify whether the integration was real or noise, based on the orientation of the integrated viral sequences relative to the human ones. The results support the original hypothesis, says Hughes, a co-author of the new paper. “That analysis has turned out to be important,” he says.

“The integration data in cell culture is much more convincing than what was presented in the preprint, but it’s still not totally clean,” says Feschotte, who now calls Jaenisch’s and Young’s hypothesis “plausible.” (SARS-CoV-2, he notes, can also persist in a person for months without integrating its genes.)

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/05/further-evidence-offered-claim-genes-pandemic-coronavirus-can-integrate-human-dna

Respectfully,

EJ Ledet

 

 

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Michael Riordan

May 11, 2021

This question is way beyond my pay grade — as I’m a physicist, not a microbiologist — but I’ll try to give an intelligible answer. Maybe someone else with the appropriate education can take it on.

I read that Science article and was intrigued by it because there is ample evidence that, over eons, viruses have been stealthily inserting segments into our DNA. But it seems the evidence that SARS- CoV - 2 is now doing that is still rather thin, IMHO. It’s an intriguing hypothesis that needs a lot more evidence before it can be accepted as “the truth.”

As for the mRNA vaccines doing so to, I can find no evidence yet in the scientific literature for that hypothesis, which must therefore remain a mere speculation at this point. One of the (several) great benefits that I see for this new vaccine technology is that it operates entirely outside the cell nucleus, using the cell’s ribosomes to manufacture the spike proteins that then coax the immune system into producing anibodies against the coronavirus.

But other vaccines, such as Astrazeneca’s, try to monkey with our DNA (not the single-stranded RNA that carries messages from the nucleus to the ribosomes), by inserting segments into it that would then stimulate the cell to manufacture these proteins. That seems more worrisome to me.

Again, I’m not an expert on these questions and hope a card-carrying microbiologist — or perhaps even Dr. Stern — would address this issue.

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Michael Riordan

May 19, 2021

May 19 Update

Based on the county coronavirus data from last week (through 5/14 I presume) that was just published yesterday, I looks like the Covid-19 outbreaks in Blaine, Ferndale and Nooksack Valley are subsiding, but Lynden is going through the roof. From the graph at the top, you can see it heading up sharply at the beginning of May; It continued to rise and now looks like it is topping out at about 725 cases per 100K for the past two weeks. Meridian is also heading up, too, and got above 400 cases/100K by week’s end. If you add Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Meridian and Nooksack Valley together, you get 362 cases/100K. That’s well over three times the Bellingham case rate, which comes in at 112/100K for the same May 1-14. It’s clearly the north county that’s keeping the countywide rate above 200/100K.

More tomorrow, after I’ve gotten the state DoH report on variants.

 

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Dick Conoboy

May 19, 2021

Michael,

Is this being pushed by the vaccine rates?  Or the lack of vaccination in these areas?   Or does the vaccine data not lend itself to such geographical presentation such as vaccine rates by school districts. 

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Michael Riordan

May 20, 2021

Many thanks for the extremely relevant and timely question, Dick.

It turns out that the county health department has just this week begun publishing vaccination rates by school district, and here are the numbers:

https://www.whatcomcounty.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2595

Lo and behold, Lynden and Nooksack Valley come in far below Bellingham, with 36.4% and 28.5% of their respective populations having initiated vaccination — as compared to 60.3% for Bellingham, and 49.8 percent county-wide. (A word of caution may be in order in interpreting these figures, however, as the DoH would have to be able to track all vaccinations to individual residences, which may not be as easy for walk-in patients.) Still, taking these figures at face value, I think they explain a good part of the reason why Covid-19 confirmed cases have been much higher in the north county than in Bellingham.

But another part of the equation has to be proximity to British Columbia, where the B.1.1.7 and P.1 variants are known to be raging. Some of these individuals are going to be asymptomatic and coming across the border as “essential” workers, infecting people in the north county — especially those vulnerable because they are not vaccinated. How else to explain why the number of Whatcom County P.1 cases in this week’s state DoH report (published today) just doubled from 11 to 22? While Skagit County has only one such case.

The variant viruses are clearly sneaking across the border.

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